Kid Wrangling

Published on July 12, 2017

Kid Wrangling- Getting Great Expressions!

IMPORTANT!  Safety is the MOST IMPORTANT aspect of your job!  Never put a child in a position where they could fall or hurt themselves.  ALWAYS have an adult that is responsible for keeping the child safe.  If you put a child on a elevated object – ALWAYS have an adult there to catch them!

Getting Great Expressions from EVERY Child

Every portrait session is undoubtedly a different experience.  Some sessions are super easy, while others are extremely challenging.  The important thing to remember is to be flexible and patient.  Children will always keep you on your toes and you must be willing to get creative and think outside the box.


Act According to the Child’s Personality

If this is a sign-up session, make sure to read what the parent has written about their child.  If they have not written anything, you can always ask their teacher.  Start assessing the child’s personality as you are walking them onto the set.  Talk to the child and try to figure out if they are shy or outgoing, laid back or defiant. Many children are pensive as they come into the room since they aren’t familiar with the situation.  Therefore, most of the time you will need to act very animated and upbeat.  Be careful to notice any children that appear to hyper stimulate easily.  Once these children are wound up, it is very difficult to bring them back down.  Therefore, you will want to take a different approach from the very beginning – talk to these children in a low voice and stay very calm.

In General

  • Children mimic behavior so smile, laugh, and pay attention to your own body language!
  • You can show them what you want them to do and then adjust as needed.

Non-Sitting Infants

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The trick with non-sitting infants is to catch their eyes and to prop them in a way that is natural and not awkward.  A basket, a Boppy pillow in a basket or under a rug or blanket work nicely to aid in the propping of infants.  Often with babies, you have flailing of arms and legs so you want to have someone close who can pull those back in quickly.

  • If an infant will tolerate “tummy time” and can somewhat hold their head up, placing a Boppy inside a basket or on the floor with a blanket covering it will allow you to place the infant in an upright position.  Tucking arms and hands under their chest will help to push them up and hold those hands in.
  • Squeaky toys, light up or spinning objects are good for getting the attention of little ones.  Bring them in close to their eyes and bring them to where you want them (tracking).
  • Singing and saying their name also work well.
  • Younger children respond well when a Buzzzing sound is used to get their attention. Use an object, such as a ball, to buzz in and out from their face to the camera.
  • For crying babies, have their teacher calm them and swaddle them if they have a blanket.   Play classical music or white noise from your phone.


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The toddler stage is one of the cutest phases of life, but getting a toddler to pose, let alone look at the camera, can be a huge challenge.

  • Toddlers usually are interested in what is going on and are excited, but some may be a bit hesitant in a new setting with new people.
  • Give Me Five- Asking them to “Give me five” is a great ice  breaker.  Often we begin with a scenario like,” Hey, Jack!  Give me five! (Hold hand out, but as they go to hit your hand, quickly make a circle around their hand)  Ooop!  You missed!  Let’s try again.”  We may do this two or three times to get them laughing and smiling.  Most toddlers are quick to respond to the give me five ice breaker.  We also do the “Give me five” while taking images.  If a child is stiff or freezing up, the photo stylist will come in from the light side and say “Give me five” pulling back and laughing/joking before the toddler is “successful.”  The photo stylist pulls back straight toward the camera to draw the child’s eyes to the camera.
  • Play Peek-a-boo
  • Get a child to put their hands in their lap by placing your hands in your lap. You can sing a little tune such as “Place your hands on your lap, pat, pat, pat…”
  • A very effective way to get a little one’s attention is to say “Ahhh Chooo”  like you are sneezing, but a little more animated.  Kids always seem to think this is funny.
  • Younger children respond well when a Bzzzing sound is used to get their attention. Use an object, such as a ball, to buzz in and out from their face to the camera.
  • Turkey- Another trick for toddlers is “Say Turkey!”  Rather than saying “cheese,” we like to have kiddos say “turkey.”  The photo stylist stands close beside and slightly behind the photographer on the light side.  They say, “Jack, say “Turkey!”  Jack says, “Turkey!”  Photo stylist says, “Hey, did you just call me a turkey?”  This typically results in a genuine smile from children.
  • Playing ball.  Have them throw a ball with you.  Make sure the photo stylist gets the ball and brings it back to the camera lens.  This will track their eyes back to the camera.  Find a bounce back ball that has a string attached!
  • Try creating boundaries by having the child sit on something.  Chairs, a box, a short wall, or even someone’s lap may work.  When they have a so-called boundary, it helps them stay (at least for a few minutes – ha!)  You can also incorporate a toy above the camera or a headband on you to grab their attention.  Make it a fun experience and you will have their attention.
  • These little games and activities can work wonders also; once you have their attention, try having them play copycat with you.  Show them some silly things to copy first, then have them start to copy poses that you are hoping for.   You can also put a little dot sticker on the bottom of their foot or hand.  The sticker grabs their attention for a bit of time and allows you to grab a cute shot of them.


Crying Toddlers

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  • The idea is to take the focus off the crying child.  They are in an unfamiliar situation and stressed — this is usually why they are crying.
  • TAKE THE FOCUS OFF THE CHILD!  If there are a lot of people in the room acting like crazy people trying to get the baby to calm down… politely ask them to leave.  You may want to leave too.
  • Before you leave, add some toys that the child might be interested in… have their teacher play with them with the toys on the set.  Once the child is calm, it’s time to return and try to get some natural images of the child playing with the toys.  Blocks work wonders!
  • Singing songs like, “Old McDonald,”  “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “The Wheels on the Bus,” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” also are good techniques.  They are familiar things to the child and will take their mind off of this new scary situation.  Ask the teacher what is a song that they sing in the classroom.
  • Have everyone stop saying “don’t you want to take a picture for your mommy?” and talking about pictures… have them talk about playing.  And then play with them!
  • Make a game out of throwing a ball.  First toss the ball with your photo stylist and then to the familiar adult in the room.
  • Kids this age seem to love physical humor (think Three Stooges) so hitting your photo stylist in the face with a soft ball might be funny.
  • Peek-a-boo puppets.   If you have a puppet or stuffed animal, have it peek out from the soft box.   Even better if it makes the noise of the animal.  I have a cow that really moos and that can bring great interest and distract the crying child to something else.
  • Blocks.  Give the toddler something to do, and back away.  Let them play on the set with something they are interested in.   Have the familiar teacher stack the blocks and the child or the teacher can knock them down.  This is sometimes funny.
  • Favorite Teacher.  See if you can get their favorite teacher or favorite friend to come in the room and “play with them”.
  • The Old Switch-a-Roo.  Take all the focus off the crying child.  Let them watch another child being photographed.  The trick is to keep the crying child in good light on the set.   Pretend to take photos of the other more calm cooperative child.   Call the other child’s name, praise the other child.   Sneak photos of the now hopefully calm child.

*Give me Five and Say “turkey” are techniques that work well with all age groups with the exception of infants.


  • Same techniques as toddlers.
  • Grounding. Kids that are “on the move” may require grounding.  This means a secure seated position either on the floor, on a chair, box, or sofa.  Depending on the set pieces, you may be able to corral the child within a space.
  • Action photos are awesome.  Try getting the little ones to march in place, spin or jump.


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  • Loosen up older children by playing “Gimme’ Five”, but move your hand a few times before you actually let the child hit it.
  • When a child fakes their smile and/or has an unusually stiff pose, get them to talk to you about something such as their family, siblings, school, or whatever else they are interested in talking about. Another way to help a child relax is to get them to say something silly like “Turkey!” or “My brother has boogers” or “Peanut!” or “Pickles” or anything else that you think would make the child smile.
  • If a child won’t cooperate and you are having a difficult time getting them to look at the camera, try a little game of catch. The portrait helper stands next to the photographer and throws a ball at the child. When the child throws the ball back to the photo stylist, take the picture.
  • Preschoolers love puppets or other eye catching items like a spinning Minnie Mouse or Elmo.  Talking about their favorite shows like Sesame Street, Little Einsteins, Lala Loopsy, etc. usually produces smiles.

Shy Children

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If you begin a session and the child is shy or uncooperative, let him or her stay in the room and observe a session or two for another child. Interact with the observing child periodically and see if you can help them feel at ease with being photographed.

Shy children require a calmer introduction.  Having the photo stylist and photographer calmly introduce themselves and complementing or commenting on something the child is wearing, holding, or likes helps to break the ice.  If the child has a friend who they can watch first, this may help.  Often, the “Give me five” approach works with shy children, too.

When you have a younger timid child, let the teacher sit in the room along with the child. Ask the teacher for suggestions of things that the child likes, such as a song or game. The teacher can even remain on the set near the child while you take pictures.

Clingers (ones that won’t let go of their teacher or parent)

  • We try to have all students brought in by someone other than a parent.  It’s also preferred to have them walk to the session, if possible, rather than being carried.
  • Having the teacher or parent sit next to the child initially and “play” for a few moments may be all that is required to get them to “let go.”
  • Providing blocks, a toy, or a stuffed animal can help to break the ice.
  • Another approach to try is to have the care-giver sit the child next to them or on their lap if they are really clingy.  We hand them a few balls and have the teacher toss them into a basket placed near them on the floor.  The child usually watches.  After a few tosses, the care-giver will say “Now, you try.”  Some will toss the ball.  After a few moments, the photographer or photo stylist will say, “Hey, Ms. Jones, can you get this ball that is over here by me?  Can you throw it to Lily?” The child is then asked to throw the ball by themselves.  The teacher stays close by (beside and behind the photographer on the light side) so the child continues to feel safe.  The photo stylist should then retrieve the ball and may hold the ball above the photographers head to draw their eyes as they anticipate the next “toss.”
  • Children that are intensely shy or clingy may require all “extra” people to leave the room as it may be too overwhelming.
  • The human couch.  If a child will not let go of their caregiver, create a human couch as shown below.  A coordinating pillow is the key to make the couch not look like they are sitting on someone’s lap:

human couch

A successful portrait using a teacher as a human couch.


Hyper Children

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  • Hyper children may require a more direct and firm voice when spoken to, but remember at all times to respect the child.  We want their experience to be a great one!
  • Remain playful but set boundaries for which they can “play.”  Hyper children love the promise of being able to “jump,” so we will often tell them, “Hey, I bet you’d like to jump for us in a minute, wouldn’t you?  Alright, before we can jump, we need you to …”  Hyper kiddos love “Say Turkey” and “Give me five” but use these techniques sparingly as they can go overboard with their responses.
  • Grounding – if the child is all over the place, you may want to use a chair or other object to try to ground them.
  • Playing the ball toss game may hold their attention, too.
  • Try putting a piece of tape in their palm — it’s and unexpected move that will stop some kids in their tracks.
  • Stick a piece of colored tape to the floor or the top of a posing box or bench.  Tell them to cover it with their feet or rear end.  Here, you are ‘giving them a job’ and high energy kids LOVE to ‘do.’  If they are supercharged, have your photo stylist give them a challenge, “I bet you can’t beat me at Simon Says.”

Children who are Sensitive to Flashing

If a child’s eyes are closed in the pictures you are taking, he or she may be sensitive to the flash of the lights. You can help this situation by turning the power of the lights down and then adjust the ISO on your camera to a higher number.  If the child has a seizure disorder that is triggered by strobe lights, you may have to go with just the modeling light and crank your ISO way up!

Children with Small Eyes

When a child has small eyes, the portrait will turn out better if the child is looking up. Therefore, try to compose your shots where the child has to look up at the camera.

Defiant Children

Some children will refuse to do what you ask of them while they are on the set. For example, you may want the child to take his/her shoes off, but no matter what you say they refuse to do it.  Compromise and take some pictures with their shoes on and then try again to get the child to take their shoes off.  The main idea is to ease the child into whatever you want them to do, and if they still don’t want to do it — move on!  Take the focus away from taking photos.  Play a game, talk about their favorite things.  Try telling them to do the thing that you don’t want them to do… “Don’t you smile!,  I said don’t smile! What are you doing smiling?